Vice-Chancellor visits Max Planck Bristol lab

University of Bristol VC Prof Evelyn Welch visited the Max Planck Bristol Centre for Minimal Biology in the School of Chemistry on 30 June.

Evelyn spoke with Centre Director Imre Berger, BBI Director Dek Woolfson and researchers including EPSRC-MPBC Doctoral Fellow Rafael Moreno Tortolero. She said it was “wonderful” to hear about the work being undertaken by the team, including research on silk, ALS, synthetic vaccines, protocells and artificial enzymes.

“Thank you to the Berger, Mann and Woolfson groups for demonstrating what happens when you share facilities and ideas so openly and effectively”, she said, adding: “I learned so much and look forward to the next visit”.

Members of the Max Planck lab line up for a group photo with Vice-Chancellor Evelyn Welch.

Dora Buzas passes PhD viva

Portrait photo of Dora Buzas.Congratulations to Dora Buzas – a member of both the Max Planck Bristol Centre for Minimal Biology, and the ADDovenom research team at University of Bristol – for passing her PhD viva on 15 June 2023.

Her PhD focused on the ADDomer vaccine development platform and the engineering of high-affinity binders. The project involved the structural analysis of the Adenovirus Penton base protein-derived ADDobody and also other scaffold proteins from chimeric origins.

Dora was supervised by Prof Imre Berger and Prof Christiane Berger-Schaffitzel.

Jessica Cross shortlisted for ‘Women in Science Rising Talent’ award

Shortlisted candidates, holding bunches of flowers, stand in a semi-circle with other guests.Congratulations to Dr Jessica Cross, an ESPRC Doctoral Prize Fellow working in the Dodding/Woolfson labs, for making the shortlist of the L’Oreal-UNESCO For Women in Science Rising Talent Program, and being one of two highly commended applicants in the Physical Sciences category. Jessica visited 10 Downing Street, where she met George Freeman MP (Minister of State for Science, Research & Innovation), and has attended a training day for shortlisted candidates at the Royal Society, and a reception at the House of Commons.

Jess Cross stands next to pull up banner which carries her photo and a short biography.

Among the 170 attendees at the reception were MPs, academics and representatives from L’Oréal and UNESCO. These events have given Jessica and the others the chance to showcase their research, raise awareness of the important contribution of women in science, and discuss barriers for women in STEM and the need for policy change. 

Jessica said: “I am pleased and honoured to be recognised as a highly commended candidate by the L’Oreal UNESCO For Women in Science Program. It has been a fantastic opportunity to share our research and to network with inspiring women in science. This program is a good example of showcasing female talent in science and offering role models to the next generation of science leaders.”

Max Planck Bristol Centre for Minimal Biology Symposium

Researchers from Max Planck Bristol Centre for Minimal Biology labs in Bristol and Germany came together for two days of discussions and presentations at Clevedon Hall in March 2023.

Four photos of the participants outside the venue, at dinner, Stephen Mann presenting, and an image of the venue.

Group leaders Imre Berger, Dek Woolfson and Stephen Mann (University of Bristol), Petra Schwille (Max Planck Institute for Biochemistry, Martinsried), Joachim Spatz (Max Planck Institute for Medical Research, Heidelberg) and Tanja Weil (Max Planck Institute for Polymer Research, Mainz) attended, alongside several researchers from each of their teams.

Imre Berger interviewed for Research In Action podcast

Prof Imre Berger, DirectGraphic that reads 'Oracle: Research In Action' over an image of a microscopeor of the Max Planck Bristol Centre for Minimal Biology, has talked to Mike Stiles about viruses, pan-coronavirus antivirals, and the importance of in silico design for Oracle’s Research In Action podcast. Among other topics, he discusses what it was like to keep research work going during the worst of the pandemic, and how close we are to a vaccine that works against all current and future coronavirus variants.

German Ambassador visits Max Planck Bristol Centre

Profs Dek Woolfson, Jens Marklof, Christiane Schaffitzel, His Excellency Miguel Berger, Profs Imre Berger, Nigel Savery, Stephen Mann and Daniela Schmidt pose in front of Luke Jerram's Extinction Bell artwork at University of Bristol.
From left to right: Profs Dek Woolfson, Jens Marklof, Christiane Berger-Schaffitzel, His Excellency Miguel Berger, Profs Imre Berger, Nigel Savery, Stephen Mann and Daniela Schmidt (Photo: Bhagesh Sachania Photography)

The German Ambassador to the UK, His Excellency Miguel Berger, visited the University of Bristol on 11 November, to meet Professor Evelyn Welch, the University’s Vice-Chancellor and President, and to discuss opportunities for UK-Germany education and research collaboration.

The Ambassador, accompanied by Dr Felix Karstens from the Embassy’s Political Department, met researchers from the Max Planck Bristol Centre for Minimal Biology, as well as the University’s Senior team, and staff and students in the School of Modern Languages.

Prof Dek Woolfson, Prof Imre Berger, His Excellency Miguel Berger, and Prof Stephen Mann pose outside the MAx Planck Bristol Centre lab.
The Ambassador meets three of the Directors of the Max Planck Bristol Centre. From left: Prof Dek Woolfson, Prof Imre Berger, His Excellency Miguel Berger, & Prof Stephen Mann (Photo: Bhagesh Sachania Photography)

During their tour, they were also shown the GW4 Facility for High-Resolution Electron Cryo-Microscopy in the University’s Life Sciences Building, which underpins ground-breaking research by providing analysis tools to researchers enabling them to study the molecular processes responsible for cell function or malfunction.

Prof Nigel Savery, Dr Felix Karstens, His Excellency Miguel Berger and Prof Christiane Berger Schaffitzel in the GW4 Facility for High-Resolution Electron Cryo-Microscopy at University of Bristol.
From left: Prof Nigel Savery, Dr Felix Karstens, His Excellency Miguel Berger and Prof Christiane Berger-Schaffitzel in the GW4 Facility for High-Resolution Electron Cryo-Microscopy (Photo: Bhagesh Sachania Photography)

Dr Mark Allinson, the University’s Associate Pro Vice-Chancellor (Learning and Teaching), said: “We are honoured to have hosted a visit from the German Ambassador. Bristol is fortunate to have a number of firmly embedded partnerships with Germany through its research and language teaching, and we hope today’s visit will further strengthen those links with our European peers.”

(A version of this story was originally published by University of Bristol)

Pioneering research using bacteria brings scientists a step closer to creating artificial cells with lifelike functionality

Amoeba-shaped bacteriogenic protocell: membrane (red boundary); nucleus (blue); cytoskeleton (red filaments); vacuole (red circle); ATP production (green). Scale bar, 5 μm. Image credit: Professor Stephen Mann and Dr Can Xu

Scientists have harnessed the potential of bacteria to help build advanced synthetic cells which mimic real life functionality. The research, led by the University of Bristol and published in Nature, makes important progress in deploying synthetic cells, known as protocells, to more accurately represent the complex compositions, structure, and function of living cells.

Establishing true-to-life functionality in protocells is a global grand challenge spanning multiple fields, ranging from bottom-up synthetic biology and bioengineering to origin of life research.  Previous attempts to model protocells using microcapsules have fallen short, so the team of researchers turned to bacteria to build complex synthetic cells using a living material assembly process.

Professor Stephen Mann from the University of Bristol’s School of Chemistry, and the Max Planck Bristol Centre for Minimal Biology, together with colleagues Drs Can Xu, Nicolas Martin (currently at the University of Bordeaux) and Mei Li in the Bristol Centre for Protolife Research have demonstrated an approach to the construction of highly complex protocells using viscous micro-droplets filled with living bacteria as a microscopic building site.

In the first step, the team exposed the empty droplets to two types of bacteria. One population spontaneously was captured within the droplets while the other was trapped at the droplet surface.

Then, both types of bacteria were destroyed so that the released cellular components remained trapped inside or on the surface of the droplets to produce membrane-coated bacteriogenic protocells containing thousands of biological molecules, parts and machinery.

The researchers discovered that the protocells were able to produce energy-rich molecules (ATP) via glycolysis and synthesize RNA and proteins by in vitro gene expression, indicating that the inherited bacterial components remained active in the synthetic cells.

Further testing the capacity of this technique, the team employed a series of chemical steps to remodel the bacteriogenic protocells structurally and morphologically. The released bacterial DNA was condensed into a single nucleus-like structure, and the droplet interior infiltrated with a cytoskeletal-like network of protein filaments and membrane-bounded water vacuoles.

As a step towards the construction of a synthetic/living cell entity, the researchers implanted living bacteria into the protocells to generate self-sustainable ATP production and long-term energization for glycolysis, gene expression and cytoskeletal assembly. Curiously, the protoliving constructs adopted an amoeba-like external morphology due to on-site bacterial metabolism and growth to produce a cellular bionic system with integrated life-like properties.

Corresponding author Professor Stephen Mann said: “Achieving high organisational and functional complexity in synthetic cells is difficult especially under close-to-equilibrium conditions. Hopefully, our current bacteriogenic approach will help to increase the complexity of current protocell models, facilitate the integration of myriad biological components and enable the development of energised cytomimetic systems.”

First author Dr Can Xu, Research Associate at the University of Bristol, added: “Our living-material assembly approach provides an opportunity for the bottom-up construction of symbiotic living/synthetic cell constructs. For example, using engineered bacteria it should be possible to fabricate complex modules for development in diagnostic and therapeutic areas of synthetic biology as well as in biomanufacturing and biotechnology in general.” 

(This story was originally published by University of Bristol)

Welcome to EPSRC Doctoral Prize Fellow Rafa Moreno Tortolero

Rafael Orlando Moreno TortoleroWe are excited to introduce the newest member of the Max Planck Bristol Centre for Minimal Biology.

Rafael Moreno Tortolero has been awarded an EPSRC Doctoral Prize Fellowship to investigate the role of protein aggregates in health and disease.

We asked Rafa to introduce himself.

“I am a Venezuelan materials engineer by training (Simón Bolívar University, Venezuela), with an MSc in functional nanomaterials, a PhD in chemistry (University of Bristol, UK) and a penchant for fundamental medical research.

The latter has informed every step of my career so far. I worked with silk protein during my PhD to fabricate tissue engineering scaffolds. There, I stumbled with fundamental aspects of the protein that led me to continue my journey as an EPSRC Doctoral Prize Fellow at the very prestigious Max Planck Bristol Centre, under the mentorship of the eminent Prof. Imre Berger.

In this fellowship, I will explore a fascinating subject: the relationship between functional and aberrant protein aggregates with health and disease. More specifically, the relationship between silk and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). Both biological phenomena, one producing healthy ex-vivo protecting structures (silk) and the other causing a devastating neuronal disease, are perhaps more related than previously thought and are at the centre of my research. Inspired by the silk production machinery, removal mechanisms of toxic ALS-related aggregates will be explored through standard biochemical and biophysical techniques. Aiming to discover protein-based palliative treatments for this devastating and untreatable disease.”

Prof Imre Berger elected Fellow of Academy of Medical Sciences

Imre BergerImre Berger, Professor of Biochemistry and Chemistry and Director of the Max Planck Bristol Centre for Minimal Biology, has been elected as a Fellow of the Academy of Medical Sciences for his outstanding contributions to biomedical science and notable discoveries during the COVID-19 pandemic.

This year, the Academy has elected 60 outstanding biomedical and health scientists to its Fellowship for their remarkable contributions to biomedical and health science and their ability to generate new knowledge and improve the health of people everywhere.

Professor Berger’s work includes a number of significant breakthroughs in the fight against COVID-19. His team discovered a druggable pocket in the SARS-CoV-2 Spike protein that could be used to stop the virus from infecting human cells, blocking transmission and forestalling severe COVID-19 disease. At the height of the pandemic, his team showed that exposing the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus to a free fatty acid called linoleic acid locks the Spike protein into a closed, non-infective form inhibiting the virus’ ability to enter and multiply in cells, stopping it in its tracks.

The findings, published in Science, are now being used to develop new cost-effective treatments against all pathogenic coronavirus strains by Bristol-based Halo Therapeutics Ltd. The biotech company, co-founded by Professor Berger, is currently preparing for in-human clinical trials.

Other notable breakthroughs include the discovery that SARS-CoV-2-infected individuals could have several different SARS-CoV-2 variants hidden away from the immune system in different parts of the body, which may make complete clearance of the virus from infected persons, by their own antibodies, or by therapeutic antibody treatments, much more difficult.

Professor Berger is also pioneering new vaccine technologies. His team developed the ADDomer™, a thermostable vaccine platform for highly adaptable, easy-to-manufacture, rapid-response vaccines to combat present and future infectious diseases including COVID-19.  A key benefit of the platform is the speed with which candidate vaccines can be identified and could be manufactured in large quantities without refrigeration, significantly facilitating distribution world-wide. Vaccine innovator start-up Imophoron Ltd, co-founded by Professor Berger, is bringing ADDomer™-based vaccines to the market.

Professor Imre Berger said: “I am honoured to have been elected to the Fellowship of the Academy of Medical Sciences.

“I am also deeply grateful for the great effort by the fantastic scientists, technicians, engineers and students in my team, past and present, and the collaborators whom I have the privilege to work with. As researchers, the pandemic has presented us with immense challenges which has only highlighted the importance of scientific endeavour and medical science. It is therefore rewarding to have had our contributions recognised by the Academy that also seeks to improve and support advances in this field.”

Professor Dame Anne Johnson FMedSci, President of the Academy of Medical Sciences said: “Each of the new Fellows has made important contributions to the health of our society. The diversity of biomedical and health expertise within our Fellowship is a formidable asset that in the past year has informed our work on critical issues such as tackling the COVID-19 pandemic, understanding the health impacts of climate change, addressing health inequalities, and making the case for funding science. The new Fellows of 2022 will be critical to helping us deliver our ambitious 10-year strategy that we will launch later this year.”

The new Fellows will be formally admitted to the Academy on Monday 27 June 2022.

(This news story was originally published by the University of Bristol)

Research Associate in Synthetic Virus-derived Nanosystems (SVNs) for next generation protein and DNA delivery

** Applications are now closed **

As part of the Max Planck Bristol Centre for Minimal Biology (MPBC), a post-doctoral position is available to develop synthetic virus-derived nanosystems as next-generation protein and DNA delivery tools for genome engineering. This post is available for two years in the first instance, with potential to extend to July 2025.

The position is associated with the synthetic and structural biology laboratories of Prof Imre Berger (Biochemistry and Chemistry). The post holder would work in the newly refurbished laboratory for the MPBC, which is housed in the University of Bristol’s School of Chemistry and is a shared space with other MPBC researchers associated with the laboratories of Prof Dek Woolfson (Chemistry and Biochemistry) and Steve Mann FRS (Chemistry; protocell research). As with all projects in the MPBC, it is anticipated that the work will develop in collaboration with our Max Planck partners in Germany.

The position would be best suited to a talented, creative and ambitious early career researcher with a keen interest in synthetic and minimal biology of protein and DNA delivery systems. Essential skills for this role would include: experience with molecular biology and tissue culture techniques, construction and delivery of multifunctional synthetic gene circuitry in mammalian cells, CRISPR and non-CRISPR gene editing technologies and functional analysis by light and electron microscopy and/or FACS.

Additional info

  • More information, including the job description and how to apply, is available here.
  • For informal enquiries, please contact Professor Imre Berger (
  • The closing date for applications is 12 April 2022.